Thoughts About RPGs (Blame It On Skyrim)

As I think I briefly glossed over in a previous post, I joined the hordes of gamers who flocked to Skyrim. It’s been awhile since I played an off-line RPG, with just me, the wanna-be hero growing into myself and pitting my fumbling skills against bandits, giants and dragons galore. I must say, it’s been bloody fun. A single-player RPG offers a different experience that an on-line RPG which no matter how successful or inventive can ever duplicate with complete accuracy. I’m not here to quibble over the detriment of either genre because of the existence of the other: despite the RPG in each title, they are fundamentally different experiences, and here’s why.

My #2

Character Development

I had a hard time when I started Skyrim. Ok, I didn’t have a hard time per se, but I wasn’t getting the experience I wanted from the game. I was being a generalist to the point that as my levels came further and further apart, my competency declined in any number of skills I was attempting to develop. In the end, I threw up my hands, rerolled my character, and whittled down my main occupations to 2, with 2-4 skills that I wanted to develop on the side. HUGE IMPROVEMENT.

If you ever played a tabletop game, you likely went through a few characters. You watched them grow and develop, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. And then sometimes you made something special for a specific campaign, you know, that munchkin character that destroyed a lovingly crafted campaign that should’ve have lasted six weeks and you demolished in a couple of hours. Ever have the DM crush your entire party after one of these incidents?

Complete freedom is fun, but it’s also difficult to design around. Single-player RPG’s often get away with it, because, well, if you want to break all the rules just to see if you can get away with it you have to accept that you’ll be creamed. An MMO doesn’t have the same flexibility, especially one balancing PvE and PvP in one package. In order to finely tune encounters and keep PvP engaging, and somewhat predictable, developers have to be able to chart your expected performance.

I Told You I Was Sneaky

The New Car Smell

Hopefully, your video game doesn’t smell. But there is a certain allure to having something new and shiny, something that no one else has ever stepped foot into, even if there’s 100, 000 other of the same model on the road.

When you crank up a single-player RPG, it’s a pristine environment waiting for your input for everything to happen. Those untrodden peaks really are untrodden, even if the guy 4 blocks over is playing the exact same game. Even better, it doesn’t matter how long the game has been out, there aren’t any “helpful” people trying to tell you the best way to reach the inn in the next town, or navigate your way to the armory when all you really want to do is find it yourself.

Unless you’re in from the ground up in an online game, you’ll always be riding around in a used car. No matter how well the upkeep has been, you’ll always find someone’s pocket change in the seat or a stray wrapper in the trunk. You might even have some little notes on a post-note from the previous owner about how Bertha likes to have a nice long warming up period on cold winter days.

Once you have enough players who have “finished” the game, your chances of complete and utter discovery all on your own are highly diminished unless you choose to play the game in isolation, you know, like a single-player game. There’s also all this stuff you’ll have missed, experiences that are no longer fully available, because that time is past. The game has moved on and changed.

Change is good, and one of the huge boons of playing in a persistent game-world. But if you want new… like new until you discover it off-line will provide a better experience.

I AM the Hero of This Campaign

Grind Away

This one really depends on the game, but grinding is more prevalent in on-line environments than off-line. Some MMO’s are built entirely around your ability to grind, grind, grind away with little or no questing options to attain a level.

The thing I’m enjoying about Skyrim, and I’ve enjoyed about games like it, is that the leveling process seems a natural extension of what I’m already doing. I sneak around  a lot, I get a level. I make some pots, I get a level. I put an arrow in some fellow’s back, I get a level then too. It’s even more noticeable in dungeons. I go in, clear out the den of evil, and I’m done. Never have to see it again.

That’s not to say there isn’t any grind. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of making pots… but I always end up making them. There’s just something about creating your own stuff that I can’t keep myself from doing. However, after a whole hour of making some flasks, I would be more than happy to burn my alchemy table and all the salts, flours, and various organ parts I’ve collected with it.

All that being said, the grind seems to be confined better than on-line games. I don’t think it’s a lack of imagination, or a failure on the part of developers to be invested in the fun factor of their games. Honestly, I think it really comes down to content churn. MMO’s have constant and unceasing content churn. They have agreed to provide a place to play 24/7/365, and they know if you’re not happy, you’re not paying either monthly fees or for those item upgrades. The problem is, every player is going to go through content at a different pace. What takes me a couple of weeks might take someone else a couple of months. Players who chew up content need something and the grind fills up the niche admirably, whether it’s persistent from level 1 to cap, or something you find at “the end.”

Off-line games don’t have to worry about that. You pay your cash, you play as much as you want, but when the content ends, it ends. Who cares if you put it on a shelf and don’t dust it off for 10 years and 3 computer upgrades from now?

On-line or off-line, they’re both still RPG’s. They pull from the earlier games that were played on tabletops in folks kitchens. What I want when I game is a persistent, live-able world that is created for my adventures to take place. It doesn’t matter how you choose to play it: you’ll find books, characters, townships, farms, monsters, gods and goddesses, all presented in a package to create vibrant spaces that transport us from our humble abodes in the real-world into living fantasies. Whether I’m the hero or not is irrelevant to me. I just want the opportunity to explore and discover what makes the game-world what it is. While I like a lot of things available in off-line environments that never quite translated into on-line environments, I accept that, because MMO’s are a different creature that needs to play by different rules. I’m sure early table-toppers had kittens over the lack of freedom available in a computer game, but had to adapt, because sometimes it’s really hard to get a group of people at your house week after week.

Just keep giving me the world, and I’ll make the adventure.